Too many cooks stirring Rohingya pot

PRATIM RANJAN BOSE | Updated on January 09, 2018

Myanmar must show the political will to solve ethnic issues democratically. It can take cues from India’s Northeast plans

Recent developments in Myanmar are proof that there is no immediate solution to the Rohingya issue. The events also vindicate India’s support to the Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD-led government in Naypyitaw — ignoring pressures from key ally Bangladesh, emphasising on the return of the refugees — as part of a long-term strategy to gain foothold in Myanmar, where China holds significant clout.

China has a long-standing relationship with the Burmese armed forces, the Tatmadaw, and was a party to the peace process. Beijing also has economic and strategic interest in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State, which didn’t participate in the peace process initiated by the civilian government.

Hasty agreement

On November 23 — exactly three months after the latest round of trouble broke out in the Rakhine State, displacing over six lakh Arakanese Muslims — Myanmar and Bangladesh entered a hastily drawn preliminary agreement, at the behest of China, for repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh, shutting the door to any “third party” intervention.

This is the third such agreement between the two nations on refugee repatriation in 40 years. The previous one, in 1992, failed to bring any solution as refugees kept coming.

The 2017 agreement is drawn on the tenets of 1992, which Myanmar always used in its own favour and, is restricted to only those Rohingyas displaced in the recent violence. There is no commitment either on the part of Myanmar or China on crucial citizenship issue or the fate of nearly four lakh Rohingyas pushed out to Bangladesh between 1992 and August 2017.

However, Bangladesh dropped its demand for a lasting solution under UN supervision that was opposed by China. “If we two can solve the problem, why do we need a third party?” Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reportedly said in Dhaka on November 26.

Designed to fail

The problem cannot be resolved unless Myanmar strikes a political solution of the citizenship issue, created by the military regime. The all-important Tatmadaw, which control affairs in Rakhine and citizenship issues, didn’t show any inclination to change track, till recently.

At a secretary-level bilateral meeting in Naypyitaw, in October, the Tatmadaw (controlling home, defence and border affairs) didn’t allow Bangladesh to mention the refugee issue. The meeting went haywire as Myanmar decided everything right from agenda to the joint declaration unilaterally.

Did Tatmadaw change its opinion after the bilateral pact? On November 24, a day after the bilateral pact was signed, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing in Beijing.

According to Reuters, the army chief claimed on Facebook that they discussed the “promotion of cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries, the situation of China standing on Myanmar’s side at the forefront of the international community regarding the Rakhine issue,” and other issues.

It is anybody’s guess where Tatmadaw stands vis-a-vis the government in the balance power after the agreement, and why Rohingyas have little to expect from this deal. As in the past, many may not return to Myanmar again.

Security will be a major concern for not only Bangladesh but also India that shares a 4,100 km porous land border with Bangladesh. India already has 40,000 illegal Rohingya immigrants.

Dhaka, it may be recalled, was silent all across in the past, abstaining discussions in the UN on Rohingya issue, at the behest of its military that has a strong bond with China and the largest buyer of Chinese military hardware. Army-ruled Bangladesh for one-third of the 45-year history and is now a parallel power centre.

In September this year Dhaka made a strong pitch against Myanmar in the UN. The deluge of refugees had drawn the attention of the entire world including Asean, Europe and the US.

But China and Russia — permanent members on the UN Security Council — blocked the way for UN resolution in Rohingya’s favour. Hasina may now use that as an excuse for the volte-face. But many in Dhaka believe she compromised national interests to brighten her electoral prospects.

Positive takeaways for Delhi

Whichever version is true, China’s image took a major beating in Bangladesh, for coming to the rescue of Myanmar and its anti-Rohingya stance. And, that’s a positive takeaway for India, which became extremely unpopular in Bangladesh in last three months for its Myanmar strategy.

That’s not the only positive takeaway. China jumped into action in response to the moderation of the US strategies along the Indian line of thought.

During his joint press briefing with Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, on November 15, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a departure from the past and reposed faith in the civilian government to address the ethnic issues in Myanmar and reminded security forces it was incumbent upon them to “respect” the commitments of the civilian government. Realising that pressure is building up on Tatmadaw; China immediately swung into action.

Beijing claims it will help resolve the conflict through economic development of Rakhine and creation of economic corridor to Yunnan. This has been in the pipeline. They have a port at Rakhine with pipelines to Yunnan and proposed building SEZ.

What goes unsaid is Chinese projects were facing local resistance for indiscriminate land acquisition by the military. And, the Suu Kyi government was resisting China’s arm-twisting tactics like claim over a higher stake on the port than initially agreed. China may just be using the situation to clear the hurdles.

The bigger issue is development for whom? Rakhine has fertile farmland and 11 lakh Rohingyas were the leading agri-community. Of the total four lakh fled to Bangladesh between 1992 and August 2017.

Another 1.2 lakh are living in a camp in Sittwe since 2012. The rest six lakh have left the country in last three months. And, no one expects all of them to return to the war zone again.

Is China proposing development for Rohingyas or without Rohingyas? Will Rakhine or Myanmar be peaceful without Rohingyas? On November 8, a Rakhine Buddhist insurgent group ambushed on security forces, in Paletwa, killing nearly a dozen. They are waging war against the majority Bamar Buddhists.

Myanmar is facing too many mutinies from the ethnic religious and cultural minorities spread along the entire border region and Rohingya conflict is one of them. But how Myanmar handles Rohingya issue will determine the course of the peace process.

Myanmar needs the political intent to solve those conflicts, they can learn a thing or two from Delhi’s handling of ethnic conflicts in the North Eastern India.

Protracted dialogue resolved most of the ethnic conflicts in the North Eastern India over the last 30 years.

Even those hardline Naga leaders holed up in Myanmar have grown too old fight, while attending endless meetings in Delhi. It is time Myanmar learnt the art and craft of democracy.

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Published on December 07, 2017
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